The least-anticipated Patriots game in decades and 3 more NFL thoughts on Christmas Eve – Boston Herald

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As someone who makes a living observing, analyzing, reporting on, writing about and enjoying football, rest assured there is no joy in this next question.

Is Sunday’s Patriots game the least-anticipated of the Bill Belichick era?

Granted, there is no single, reliable tool for capturing fan interest. In the age of streaming, TV and radio ratings become less relevant by the year. Social media engagement is too easily manipulated to offer real insight.

It’s a feel thing. How many of your friends are invested in Sunday’s outcome? What is the big draw? What are the storylines?

What do you hear about the game in various media spaces? How much do they all care? How much do you care?

Because during the week, these topics dominated the conversation around the Patriots instead of the actual football game they’ll play against the Broncos: an NFL Draft four months away, a head-coaching decision three weeks away, the air pressure in footballs (again) and Bill Belichick being in the best mood of any press conference this season, as he was Friday morning.

In 2014, New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman grabs some extra yardage in the first quarter of the AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Sunday’s game between the teams has none of that game’s hype. (Staff Photo/Matt Stone/Boston Herald)

Whoop-de-doo.

Understanding the holiday season threw a wrench into this week, the lack of regular football talk speaks to a new nadir for the organization. Not a bad loss or an embarrassing moment or new statistical record for ineptitude. It’s fan apathy.

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At least last week, the reigning Super Bowl champions brought the intrigue to Foxboro. Belichick matched wits with Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid, the league’s best quarterback and coach, respectively. The game before that, the Pats faced an old AFC rival during a national broadcast on Thursday night in Pittsburgh, and Bailey Zappe made his first start days earlier versus the Chargers.

But for many, Sunday night’s game against the Broncos – with whom the Pats share no recent history nor bad blood nor playoff stakes – might just be background noise. That’s it.

Now, like prior losses and suffering, this, too, shall pass. Interest will soar ahead of the Pats’ regular-season finale against the Jets, driven by speculation that could be Belichick’s final game coaching in New England. Both teams stink, but we will watch because of Belichick, and the fact rivalry and history are two of the most bankable draws in sports.

Until then, on Christmas Eve, we will sit by the TV without a care; in hopes that more intrigue soon would be there.

Here are three more NFL thoughts on Christmas Eve.

Andrews’ praise noteworthy

As he went long on all his favorite topics – football history, schematics and opposing coaches he calls friends – Bill Belichick offered the highest praise he’s bestowed on any player this year.

That praise belonged to center David Andrews, a longtime captain and the only player to take 100% of the team’s offensive snaps this season. Belichick was asked about Andrews’ leadership amid the Pats’ ongoing 3-11 campaign, and he expanded.

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“Fantastic. Fantastic. He’s been, I mean, it’s been as good as I’ve seen, honestly. Every day, his performance on a daily basis is really exceptional. Attitude, effort, communication, energy, leadership of the younger players, leadership of his peers, communication, you name it,” he said.

“Look, like everybody who plays a lot of football, you get banged up, you’re going to deal with some stuff during the year. He’s shown a lot of physical toughness to play through that, a lot of mental toughness. He would never come out of practice for a play. We have to take him out to help manage some of the bumps and bruises that he has. But, this guy is a warrior.”

Those comments should not be glossed over. That was about as good as it gets from Belichick, speaking about a player whose contributions naturally go overlooked but have helped keep a locker room together as a season falls apart.

Rodgers played Jets

So, Aaron Rodgers didn’t complete an unprecedented comeback and defy all medical expectations and history involved with a serious Achilles injury? Shocking.

What actually surprised: how many national reporters bought the notion Rodgers could make a mid-December return, which he told NBC was his goal. Rogers finally admitted this week on ESPN’s Pat McAfee Show: “Being medically cleared as 100 percent healed is not realistic at 14 weeks.”

New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers is tended to on the field during the first quarter of a game against the Buffalo Bills. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers is tended to on the field during the first quarter of a game against the Buffalo Bills. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Any member of the medical community could have told you that once Rodgers tore his Achilles in early September. This was not a matter of will or “shocking people,” as Rodgers once insisted, but the molecular reconstruction of his tendon. Still, Rodgers pushed and pushed and pushed this ridiculous narrative, occasionally backtracked on his own comments and pushed some more.

It was all hot air. Rodgers will remain on the Jets’ 53-man roster, however, so he can continue to participate in Jets practices in some capacity over the final few weeks. To make room for Rodgers, the Jets released Nick Bawden.

Here’s hoping for less hot air, better health and more football from Rodgers moving forward.

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Stop underestimating the 49ers

The 49ers’ underlying numbers indicate they are already a historically great team.

They have MVP candidates at quarterback and running back. One-time All-Pros play for them at wide receiver, tight end and left tackle. They boast a a top-5 defense. What more must we see?

A big win Monday night? Fair.

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey in action during the NFC Championship game last Jan. 29 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (Matt Rourke, AP)
San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey in action during the NFC Championship game last Jan. 29 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) (Matt Rourke, AP)

If San Francisco handles the Ravens on Monday night in a potential Super Bowl preview, they deserve to be recognized for what they are: the overwhelming favorite to win it all. The Niners are in a tier of their own, while the rest of the league tries to play its best football heading into the playoffs.

If what we’ve seen from San Francisco isn’t their best football yet, we might be witnessing one of the best teams of the modern era.

Belichick reflects

It’s easy to forget Bill Belichick had a one-year stop in Denver.

After starting his career in Baltimore, then moving to Detroit, he helped coach the Broncos’ defense and special teams during the 1978 season. He later left Denver to coach the Giants, where his Hall of Fame career took off as a defensive mastermind.

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick walks on the field before a Nov. 26 game against the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick walks on the field before a Nov. 26 game against the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Belichick reflected on that season in the Rocky Mountains on Friday: “I learned a ton out there. It was a graduate course from Joe (Collier), from Richie (McCabe) about the secondary play, and just in general the 3-4 defense. And then, we played a over defense. It was like a version of a 3-4 Detroit, but it was a little bit different. Joe played the 3-4 defense that he played in Denver, which was –the spacing was the same, but it was configured a lot differently than what we eventually ran in the Giants when coach (Bill) Parcells came.

He continued: “Looking back on it – again that was a great learning experience, because I saw kind of the same thing, but they were actually very different in the way they were coached and the way they were – the schematics of it. And, of course, that changed some of the fundamentals, too. The red-area coverages that Joe (Collier) ran out there, I’d say at that time, he was pretty far ahead of his time. They’re pretty common now, but at that time they were pretty unique for the most part. So, that was a great experience.



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